MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- At some point Thursday night, in front of more than 18,000 fans presumably whipped into a frenzy by the presence of multiple international superstars expected to be in attendance, Penny Hardaway will be introduced, for the first time inside FedExForum, as coach of the University of Memphis Tigers.
"It's going to be an amazing feeling," Hardaway told me this week. "It should be pretty amazing."
The whole evening should actually be pretty amazing -- especially if it goes as planned.
Memphis Madness is Thursday night.
It's been the hottest ticket in town since the moment tickets went on sale -- and it became an even hotter ticket, last week, when 92.9 FM ESPN's Jason Smith, a former Memphis beat writer at The Commercial Appeal, reported that Drake, Justin Timberlake, Yo Gotti, Moneybagg Yo and Blocboy JB will be in attendance to help create what would be the most star-studded Madness in college basketball history. A lower-level seat cost 10 bucks, five bucks for the upper level. Memphis president M. David Rudd tweeted the following Monday ...
In case you’re wondering, Memphis Madness is officially sold out.— Dr. M. David Rudd (@UofMemphisPres) October 1, 2018
Yep, 18,000 tickets sold. Not given away. Sold. For a pep rally, more or less. On Tuesday, Memphis added additional floor seats and priced them at $100 each. By Wednesday, those were all gone too.
"I'm just so thankful for the city of Memphis," Hardaway said. "They've always supported me."
Which is true, of course.
The support started three decades ago -- back when Hardaway was a star at Treadwell High and, eventually, the 1990 Parade National Player of the Year while averaging 36.6 points, 10.1 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 3.9 steals and 2.8 blocks per game as a senior. The 6-foot-7 point guard subsequently enrolled at what was then called Memphis State University, where he played two seasons after sitting out his freshman year. He was the Great Midwest Conference Player of the Year in 1992 and 1993. He was also a consensus First Team All-American in 1993 -- and then the third overall pick in the 1993 NBA Draft.
This was still eight years before the Grizzlies moved to Memphis.
So Hardaway basically served as the city's NBA franchise.
He was, early on with the Magic, on his way to a Hall of Fame career -- evidence being how he was First Team All-NBA in 1995 and 1996, an Olympic gold medalist in 1996, and an NBA All-Star each season from 1995 through 1998. But Hardaway suffered a major knee injury during the 1997-98 season. And though he played parts of nine years following the first of what ended up being five knee surgeries, truth is, the dynamic talent was never again the same.
His final NBA game was Dec. 3, 2007.
Four months later, his alma mater played in the title game of the 2008 NCAA Tournament. But just like Hardaway was never the same after that first knee surgery, Memphis has never been the same since Mario Chalmers made that shot. Yes, the Tigers were good the following season and made the 2009 Sweet 16. But then John Calipari left for Kentucky and was replaced by Josh Pastner, who kept Memphis relevant for a while but never guided the program past the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament. Pastner missed the NCAA Tournament in three of his seven years and was, following the 2015-16 season, encouraged by the administration to leave for Georgia Tech.
Insert Tubby Smith.
Experience total disaster.
Nobody denies Smith has had an incredible career that includes a national title and the honor of taking five different schools to the NCAA Tournament. But he was a terrible fit for the Memphis job right from the jump. He demoted the father of his best two players, then lost his best two players, both of whom -- their names are Dedric and KJ Lawson -- are expected to help Kansas win a 15th straight Big 12 championship this season. Smith never enrolled a top-150 prospect at Memphis, according to 247Sports composite rankings. He never sniffed the NCAA Tournament or even the NIT. And after just two seasons in which attendance, revenue, recruiting and basically everything else hit modern-era lows, Memphis did the lone intelligent thing it could do -- i.e., fire Tubby Smith, even though the cost of doing it was roughly $10 million, because, , the only thing more expensive than firing Tubby Smith after two seasons would've been keeping Tubby Smith for a third.
You'll see why Thursday night.
Again, more than 18,000 people have bought tickets for what amounts to a pep rally -- this after season-ticket sales, under Smith, plummeted to just 4,115 last season. Put another way, several thousand more people will be inside FedExForum for Memphis Madness than there ever was for an actual basketball game Tubby Smith coached in two years.
Justin Timberlake and Drake's reported presence have something to do with that, I guess.
But, mostly, this is a celebration of Penny Hardaway.
He's increased season-ticket sales so much that he's already generated enough new revenue to pay for the first year of his salary and the first year of Smith's buyout. He's already enrolled three prospects -- Antwann Jones, Tyler Harris and Alex Lomax -- who were rated higher in their high school class than any prospect Smith ever enrolled. And, according to 247Sports, he has made Memphis the favorite to land the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2019 (James Wiseman), the No. 26 recruit in the Class of 2019 (Trendon Watford), and the No. 47 recruit in the Class of 2019 (D.J. Jeffries). All three, by the way, are expected to attend Memphis Madness -- as is the No. 8 recruit in the Class of 2019 (Precious Achiuwa), the No. 33 recruit in the Class of 2019 (Jahmius Ramsey) and the No. 35 recruit in the Class of 2019 (Boogie Ellis).
Bottom line, the contrast between this year and last year is impossible to overstate.
Memphis Basketball was dead and filled with hopelessness.
But now, as Drake might say, it's time to look alive.